Review of Musical Revolutions: How the Sounds of the Western World Changed by Stuart Isacoff

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Stuart Isacoff surveys almost two millennia of Western music in his latest book, “Musical Revolutions: How the Sounds of the Western World Changed”. It’s always a challenge to bring music to life on the page, but Isacoff tackles it head-on, describing his project as a “book about moments in music history when things changed drastically, a succession bold leaps in the progress of Western culture.”

A pianist and composer who performs, writes and lectures on music, Isacoff delves deep into history to discuss what’s new in Western music that we take for granted today, such as musical notation, polyphony (multiple simultaneous musical voices), opera, and jazz. In the first chapter, “Singing from Symbols,” he reports that St. Augustine (354-430) “was seized with guilt” because music had distracted him from the word of God. The church as a whole had an ongoing challenge with the emotional and seductive power of music and, concerned about the variety of religious songs in its kingdom, tried to standardize these songs.

But without musical notation, there was no way to do it. Saint Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636) worried that “if sounds are not retained in memory by man…they perish”. King Charlemagne (742-814) undertook the task without success. The turning point came when the Italian monk Guido of Arezzo (990-1050) devised a written system to instruct his students. But instead of being celebrated for his breakthrough, he was greeted with “envy and contempt” by his religious colleagues. It was not until Pope John XIX adopted Guido’s system that he was rehabilitated.

If this leap into history takes your breath away, buckle up for what’s next.

Isacoff then considers the development of Western polyphony — indispensable to music today — which arose separately in various parts of Europe and the Byzantine Empire and was intimately linked to the mathematics of sound and rhythms of increasingly sophisticated. As he does elsewhere, Isacoff points out that non-Western music—such as Indian raga and West African percussion—deployed these creative concepts much earlier. The music of the Central African Pygmies, he points out, “can involve eighteen distinct interwoven parts”.

Isacoff takes readers through the birth of opera and its threat to reject the church’s “prescription of emotional restraint”. He whistles from the order by the Medici of an opera entitled “Euridice in 1600; to the French tradition embodied by the collaborations of Jean Baptiste Lully with Molière to create the comedy-ballet; to the “watershed” of English opera, the 1728 “Beggars Opera” by John Gay and Johann Christoph Pepusch, based on popular ballads and revived 200 years later in Kurt Weill and Bertolt’s “Three Penny Opera” Brecht. It pays homage to Mozart, then introduces readers to contemporary operas by Philip Glass and John Adams, as well as the Met’s first performance of an opera by a black composer, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” by Terence Blanchard l ‘last year.

Naturally, Isacoff made choices about what to include on his musical tour. I loved the Bach family chapter, partly because the pacing was a little less rushed. It devotes two chapters to the development of jazz and its intersection with “classical” music. Although Isacoff could have spent a lot more time on this multi-faceted medium, within the scope of this book, I was happy with the space it gave him.

However, some choices seem like afterthoughts. Particularly shocking is his chapter titled “A Question of Sex”, which goes like this: “Only recently has a quiet revolution granted the fairer sex a fairer status.” Oh good? The fair sex? In 2022? His description of Beijing-born pianist Yuja Wang, “who elicits almost as much reaction with her short, form-fitting outfits as with her flashy technique and deep musicality,” left me wondering why none of the flashy, foppish men in the reserve the same treatment.

The problem with books that span centuries of musical development is that they inevitably leave people out. While accurately noting that women conductors have faced the steepest rise – particularly in the United States – Isacoff omits Sarah Caldwell (1924-2006), who forged a career as a professional opera conductor a generation before Marin Alsop took the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007.

A chapter titled “Mozart Among the Lotus Flowers” explores the inroads of piano and Western symphonic music into modern China, concluding: “Despite historical obstacles, the marriage of East and West now seems irrevocable” . I wondered about this generalization. A “marriage” suggests musical influences traveling back and forth. Will the West embrace Eastern music with the enthusiasm that Isacoff suggests China has embraced Western music?

“Musical Revolutions” covers a staggering amount of material in less than 300 pages. It is illustrated with magnificent photographs and is accompanied by a bibliography and an index. Its prestissimo tempo, however, begs the question of who its ideal readers might be. Coverage of these critical musical revolutions seems thin to a music enthusiast and overwhelming to a neophyte. Perhaps the readers best served by this book are ecumenical music lovers who appreciate music across the centuries but perhaps lack the context for their listening.

Martha Anne Toll’s first novel, “three museswill be published in September. She completed 26 years leading a social justice foundation in 2020.

How the sounds of the western world have changed

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